YORK, Maine — An American’s odds of becoming an astronaut have been reported at less than two-tenths of 1 percent. An average high school football player has better chances of playing in the NFL.
So when York native Christopher Cassidy returns to his home state of Maine later this fall, he’ll be faced with the challenge of describing space travel to people who almost certainly have no similar frame of reference to draw from.
“There’s generally a camping atmosphere up there,” Cassidy said Thursday afternoon in a telephone interview from Houston, where he’s undergoing several weeks of physical rehabilitation and other debriefing activities following nearly six months at the International Space Station orbiting Earth.
While the astronaut’s recent trip to space was marked by near crises — he was forced out on one unplanned spacewalk to fix the station’s cooling system and later saw a colleague’s helmet dangerously fill with water — Cassidy said daily life 200-plus miles over the Earth is memorable as being “kind of stinky.”
“We’re working out a lot, and we have sweaty T-shirts around everywhere,” he said.
The astronaut chuckled when asked if the best Maine-based comparison to living in space is to pitch a tent by Sebago Lake, then not wash for several days.
“Maybe,” he said. “And every now and then, put scuba gear on and go do some work at the bottom of Sebago Lake, and that can be your space walk.”
Cassidy, 43, a former Navy SEAL who graduated from York High School, said that even taking a plunge in the lake is hard to seriously compare with space life.
“It’s a special, unique experience to be able to look out the window and see the planet and space. The pictures are pretty cool, but oftentimes it’s hard to capture what it’s really like to see it with your own eyes,” he said. “You push off the wall and just float around, and that’s really hard to get used to, even after you’ve been up there for a long time.”
Cassidy, along with two Russian cosmonauts, returned to Earth in a cramped Soyuz spacecraft on Sept. 11, touching down in what he called a “controlled crash” in Kazakhstan. He said he’s due to return to Maine in early November for a series of public appearances.
In his NASA career, Cassidy has completed six spacewalks — leaving the space station in the well-known, thick white suit with a bubble-shaped mask many people consider synonymous with astronauts to do maintenance work on the vessel.
On Oct. 4, Hollywood will give its latest take on that activity with the thriller “Gravity,” in which astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are stranded in space after debris destroys their shuttle while on a spacewalk.
“If you don’t [think about possible catastrophes], you’re not fully prepared,” Cassidy said. “We really think through all those ‘what-ifs.’ A water leak on the inside of somebody’s helmet isn’t something you expect to have happen, but that’s what happened to Luca.”
On that July occasion, Cassidy and Italian space researcher Luca Parmitano had to cut a planned six-hour spacewalk off after just longer than an hour and a half after a suit malfunction caused water to start filling Parmitano’s helmet.
“We have to think about how you would get back inside quickly and being ready for that sort of thing,” Cassidy said. “There’s always some weird, crazy failure out there that you couldn’t have foreseen.”
One of Cassidy’s spacewalks was famously an unplanned trip outside the station in May to search for an ammonia leak in the facility’s cooling system.
But thankfully, the astronaut said, the crises in space are few and far between.
The team aboard the space station spends time helping earthbound scientists conduct experiments by setting up tests and monitoring results, said Cassidy. He said he worked on tests to determine how flames react in zero gravity and how liquids flow in containers of different shapes in that environment.
The latter test found that liquid flows in a consistent direction in modified heart-shaped containers without gravity, he said, suggesting that future space vessels might be able to do away with pumps.
But Cassidy acknowledged that much of what he experienced more than 200 miles above the Earth consisted of simple everyday tasks — like eating, cleaning, grooming and exercising — done weightlessly.
That lack of gravity makes everything a little difficult, Cassidy, who brought a toy lobster and several Maine T-shirts with him to space, said. To shave and cut hair, he said, astronauts must attach electric razors to a vacuum cleaner to keep the hairs from floating all over the space station.
Washing must be done with baby wipes and washcloths, because water from a shower would just float away, Cassidy said.
But the Maine man said one special treat from his home state was interestingly suited for space.
“Stonewall Kitchen from my hometown of York sent up some blueberry jam with me,” he said. “It’s sticky enough where it stays really nicely. I put it on waffles, but a lot of it I just ate right out of the jar because it’s that good.”